Our ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ Coupon Strategy

My recent article on how to find and get the most value out of your local discount grocer led to a lot of great follow-up questions and comments from readers.

One reader, Laurie, wrote in:

What about coupons? I still clip coupons from the Sunday paper and use the Redplum and Target apps to nab coupons. What does your couponing strategy look like?

Sarah and I have tried a lot of couponing strategies over the years. We used to be very adamant about clipping coupons from the Sunday paper and even used a coupon binder for several years.

Over the years, though, I learned several things about couponing.

First, the more time you invest, the more the returns diminish. I view couponing as one of those things where you’re investing your personal time to get a financial return on that time. If you can find a $2 coupon and have it in hand for a minute’s effort, then it’s well worth it. On the other hand, if you’ve already clipped $25 worth of coupons and are spending a lot of time trying to eke out another dollar or two in savings, then it’s no longer worth it.

I have found, over and over again, that if I’m spending more than five or 10 minutes on grabbing coupons for my next shopping trip, I’m very quickly reaching the point where it’s not worth my additional time. Almost all of the value I find in coupons comes in the first few minutes of searching and clipping, so it’s a good idea to stop right then and there.

Second, name brand coupons rarely make an item as inexpensive as the store brand version. If a store brand item is $1.99 and the name brand is $2.49 and I can only find a $0.40-off coupon, then the store brand is still cheaper.

To put it simply, a name brand item has to have a pretty nice coupon for it to be a winner over a store brand item or a generic item. A $1 off coupon might look nice, but if the item is already $0.75 more expensive than the store brand, I’m really only saving a quarter.

Third, there typically aren’t coupons for a large portion of my grocery list. A lot of my grocery shopping is spent in the produce section or the dry good bins section. I do buy some items in the aisles, but a lot of it is household supplies and toiletries.

To tell the truth, most of our coupon use is actually for coupons for toiletries and household supplies, not food items. Most food items we purchase are simply not ones for which coupons are found regularly.

All of that being said, couponing does play a small role in our overall grocery shopping strategy. It’s just not the centerpiece, because the time and effort we would have to put into couponing to actually save a notable amount of money simply wouldn’t be worth it. Why? The other tactics we use save us a lot of money just by default, and the value provided by coupons is eaten up by those practices for the most part.

I refer to our couponing as “lowest hanging fruit” couponing, because we’re really only looking for the obvious wins at a quick glance, because the time invested beyond that never pays off. Here’s how we get to that point.

SnipSnap is an app I use on my phone that pops up coupons automatically upon entering a store. Often, it’ll find things like “30% off any item in this store” type coupons, which is just pure savings. This doesn’t typically happen at my usual grocery stores, but it does happen at a lot of specialty stores, like if I’m going to Jo-Ann Fabrics to pick up some yarn for my wife (who’s a prodigious crocheter) or if I’m going to PetSmart to find some pet food for one of my children’s pets (two of them have quirky diets).

SnipSnap checks my GPS location in the background and, if it sees that I’m close to or inside a store, it checks to see if there are any store-wide coupons available for that specific store and, if there is, it just fires off a popup alert for me. I tap on the alert and there’s the coupon. No effort at all – this is pure low hanging fruit.

Store brand coupons are actually a real thing at some stores, where the grocery flyer will actually have coupons for the store brand version of items. Since I already download the grocery flyer when making my meal plan and grocery list, snagging any coupons that I notice is a good choice.

One store that does this quite often is Target. I sometimes shop at Target for household items and the Target app, which I keep on my phone, typically includes several coupons for their various store brands (Up and Up, Archer Farms, and so on). I check the app as I’m strolling through the store looking for whatever household item I’m looking for, and if they have a coupon for a store brand staple that I know I’ll use, I’ll typically pick it up because a store brand with an additional coupon is usually well below the name brand version. I recently stocked up on dry pasta doing this very thing.

General coupon apps aren’t very useful for me, but I do look at them if I’m standing in the checkout aisle. What I’m looking for are coupons for any name brand items in my cart. I find that about 20% of the time, I find a coupon of some sort, which basically is as good as finding money on the ground in the checkout aisle. I generally use the SmartSource and Red Plum apps for this.

An example: I was recently at the store and needed sugar for a recipe and the C&H brand sugar was on sale, making it the least expensive five pound bag there (I think there’s a store brand that’s usually cheaper, but not that day). As I was standing in the checkout, I flipped through the Smart Source app and lo and behold there was a $1 off coupon for C&H sugar. That’s as good as finding a dollar bill, which is a lot better use of my time in the checkout than looking at the cover of gossip magazines or checking Facebook to see pictures of my neighbor’s cat.

The lazy Sunday coupon flyer is an occasional thing because we don’t subscribe to a print Sunday paper, but if I’m somewhere where there’s a Sunday paper sitting around and I’m just sitting there, I’ll glance through the coupons and grab any that seem like they might be something we’d use.

Something I’ve noticed with newspaper coupons is that, almost always, if you wait two or three weeks, the exact item that you have a coupon for goes on sale at the store before the coupon expires. While I have no evidence of this, I have a feeling that this is a common strategy for food retailers in order to bump sales numbers. They’ll run coupons one week, then work with stores to have items on sale a few weeks later. If you just hold onto the coupon, you can hit both. This often puts the value of the (usually) name brand item well below the store brand version.

I don’t usually have a whole lot of coupons when doing this. The ones I do have are in an envelope and I just check them when I’m making a grocery list, cross checking them with the grocery store flyer. Having a coupon for a name brand item alone is not enough to get me to add that to my grocery list because (a) the coupon alone usually doesn’t make the item much different in price than the normal store brand and (b) there’s probably a sale in that store coming up that I can stack the coupon on, making it actually worthwhile. If that doesn’t work out? I ditch the coupon when it expires – no big deal. This takes maybe thirty seconds when writing out my grocery list.

A final tip: Shop at discount grocers using a grocery list as a starting point. For me, that simple method alone is far better than an extensive couponing strategy. A good discount grocer has strong prices by default and they tend to be super competitive with their store brand prices, which means that name brand coupons really aren’t all that effective unless you’re stacking them on top of a sale already, as I noted above.

To put it simply, I got far better results simply switching to doing meal planning and making a grocery list and sticking to that list than I ever got from just going to the store with coupons and only a vague plan as to what to buy. Also, the cost benefit of switching to a discount grocer for most grocery shopping – in my case, switching from Hy Vee to Faraway – was worth more than coupons ever saved me, even with substantial time investment in the coupons. A third point – buying mostly store brands is a far better money saver than heavy couponing, too.

Not only that, these “low-hanging fruit” techniques give me most of the value I was getting from coupons anyway. Yes, I’m probably missing a handful of coupons that might save me a few dollars all told, but I would spend substantial time finding those coupons, and that’s just not worth it. An easy-to-find coupon that I stumble across in the checkout line that saves me $1 is great; investing an hour to find several $0.50 off coupons that barely add up to $5 in savings is not.

If you’re thinking about couponing, start with smarter grocery shopping strategies first. Make a meal plan. Make a grocery list. Shop at a discount grocer. Buy mostly store brands. Once you have that in place, coupons provide much less value anyway, so stick with the very easy wins.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.